Swede dreams: The Tories' controversial plans for school reform

Conservative plans for parents to set up their own schools on the Swedish model are being rubbished by the experts

It's an approach you'd think would make traditional Conservative politicians turn in their graves. No formal classrooms; pupils allowed to design their own timetables and work at their own pace; teachers diverted from running lessons in their subjects to act as learning mentors.

But secondary schools in Sweden following this regime – run by the Kunskapsskolan group – are being held up as the way forward by the Cameron Conservatives, who want state and local authority control swept away in England and parents to be given the freedom to set up their own schools.

This was the vision outlined by shadow schools secretary Michael Gove at the Tory party conference last week. Schools would be able to adopt their own educational approaches – however unconventional – and, assuming local parents choose to send their children to a school, the government would provide that school with a lump of taxpayers' money for those pupils to be educated. These would be state-funded, not state-controlled, schools.

Such loosening of state control has, say the Tories, been a runaway success in Sweden, and there's no reason it wouldn't work here. Gove suggests as many as 3,000 such new schools could emerge in England if such a voucher-type system were adopted. It would bring diversity to the landscape, he argues, and give parents real choice.

It is just this market-led approach that's allowed the Kunskapsskolan schools, and numerous other private and parentally driven competitors, to flourish in Sweden. Around 900 have emerged since the law was changed in the 1990s, leading, it is claimed, to a rise in standards at both the newly created schools and the established state ones

"The voucher system has had a great impact," says Anders Hultin, founder of the Kunskapsskolan schools.

"The fact that parents can start a school whenever they want to, has changed the whole atmosphere and power structure, because politicians know that if, in any locality, they go too far from what parents want, a new school might open that could attract pupils away from state schools."

Hultin is now based in London, because the Kunskapsskolan approach already has a foothold in the English system. The organisation has been approved by Richmond upon Thames Council in London to take over two of the toughest comprehensives in the borough, Whitton School and Hampton Community College, and turn them into academies.

The freedoms that come with academy status will be used at the relaunched south-west London schools, currently near the bottom of the borough's league tables, to bring in the child-centred approach to schooling that's been such a success in Sweden. Two questions arise. Can Kunskapsskolan's liberal methods work with big urban secondary schools that underachieve in Britain? What are the chances of the Swedish model – allowing parents and groups similar to Kunskapsskolan to start schools – taking off in a big way across England?

On the second question, the Tories have few supporters in the education establishment. The Schools Minister Andrew Adonis has rubbished the plan, suggesting it's unfair on existing schools, and uncosted.

"Where is this money going to come from [to finance this number of new schools] and how are they going to deal with the impact on existing schools?" he asks. The teaching unions are similarly dismissive of the Conservatives' adoption of the Swedish model. "It's more of a soundbite than a sound educational policy," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

"I have yet to be convinced how these schools work in Sweden, let alone in England. And there are very few parents pressing for this here. Indeed, surveys of parents repeatedly praise the schools attended by their children."

According to the NUT's acting general secretary, Christine Blower, there is research evidence in Sweden to show that the liberalisation has exacerbated ethnic and social divisions in the country. "We are against anything that takes schools out of the local family of schools, because it reduces accountability and democratic control, and creates problems for strategic planning of school places," she explains.

Whether or not the Tory plans for system-wide change along Swedish lines are ever implemented, the two school communities in Richmond are almost definitely in for a dose of Swedish educational theory. The Liberal Democrat-controlled council has given the go-ahead for the Kunskapsskolan organisation to take over from next September: a decision that's stirred up local controversy and pockets of fierce opposition, much aimed at the liberal, "personalised" education methods that will be central to the schools' new identities.

For example, pupils will, for much of the time, decide what and how they learn, either working alone on computers from online lessons, around a table in small groups or, in an informal way, seeking out a teacher to help them over a particular hurdle of understanding. Formal lessons, with a teacher addressing a large group of pupils, will be limited to only two or three a week per pupil, and take place in a lecture hall. Traditional classrooms won't exist, replaced by "the café", "editorial office" and "study room". The teacher's role will be personal tutor for the 20 pupils in his or her care, helping to shape and secure each individual's "educational goals". Subject teaching is secondary.

At a recent council meeting, the governors of Hampton Community College voiced concerns at the idea of bringing these methods to their school – and expressed outright opposition to the school becoming an academy. Other speakers at the same meeting, including local parents, claimed the new teaching system was "a recipe for chaos", and that giving control of local education to a Swedish group with "unproven methods" was "huge leap of faith on a hope and a prayer".

To counter this, the Swedish group have set up an English website (www. kunskapsskolan.co.uk) to address these concerns. They've also employed Steve Bolingbroke, a former secondary school chair of governors in Oxfordshire, as director of development, and main spokesman in the UK. He confirms that all core Kunskapsskolan methods will be introduced at the new schools, but not all on day one. There will be no Big Bang. And the schools will follow the English national curriculum. He acknowledges the fears that many in the UK have about liberal teaching methods, conceding that these were discredited by what he calls the "Summerhill, laissez-faire schools" of the 1970s. But his message is that the new schools in Richmond will not be like that. "We don't let students do whatever they want," he says. "We guide them, and if they don't learn to behave, they lose their freedom to make choices, and they are kept on a more formalised timetable, in a more supervised environment."

Hultin sees the behaviour challenge in an English school as no different from that met, and overcome, by the Kunskapsskolan schools in Sweden.

"The behaviour issue is around in every country. If you give students more responsibility, through a personalised approach to their education, they will become more interested, more motivated and then better behaved."

It is a view that will provoke profound debate in staff rooms and at breakfast tables. The fate of this particular Swedish approach in Richmond may deeply influence the popularity of the Tories' plan to open up the entire system to a smorgasbord of educational theory.

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